Eli Roth doesn’t beat around the bush. When he wants to make a statement, social commentary, he certainly doesn’t hold back. The horror genre serves him well, and you can tell how much glee he takes in paying homage to classics in his own films. He’s extremely well versed in grindhouse horror, and seems to enjoy the exploitation angle very much.
That couldn’t be more obvious than in his film, “The Green Inferno”, which is a title taken from the 1980 cannibal classic, “Cannibal Holocaust”. In the 70’s and 80’s there was a run on this disgusting sub-genre. Many were pretty awful, but I always thought “Cannibal Holocaust” had more to say than just being a gross out film. It also was one of the first “found footage films”, a concept that would make its way into the 21st century as a favorite sub-genre for modern horror filmmakers.
Roth’s “The Green Inferno” is not shot as found footage. It is a linear film that follows the story of a group of college students, environmental activists, who are trying to preserve a little known tribe in the jungles of the Amazon. Most of these characters are purposely written as either throwaways, or as extreme examples of 99%’ers. In many cases, you’re almost looking forward to their deaths.
It begins with a female student, Justine (Lorenza Izzo), observing a hunger protest. The protesters are led by a charismatic Latin American named Alejandro (Ariel Levy). He’s serious about his work, and rebuffs her after she makes a remark about an upcoming protest they have planned in Peru. They want to stop a government construction that will destroy part of the rain forest, and will negatively impact a tribe that lives among the forest. The tribe has never been caught on camera and has rarely been seen. Justine is kicked out of the group at first, but convinces Alejandro that her intentions are genuine and she was just making a joke. He believes there is nothing funny about activism.
Their protest involves capturing the destruction of the forest, along with a militia hired by the government to protect the workers–they’re obviously armed, and would kill intruders, including the tribe. Alejandro’s plan is to video record the destruction, tying themselves up against trees and pointing out what the Peruvian government is doing–then making the video go viral. Justine has a father that works as an attorney for the United Nations, and that comes in handy for them. He is against her going, along with her friend Kaycee (Sky Ferreira), who thinks the idea is stupid and dangerous.
But, Justine does indeed go, and nearly instantly regrets it, when she realizes that Alejandro may be hard to trust. His girlfriend Kara (Ignacia Allamand) is also catty, and doesn’t seem to like Justine’s presence much at all.
This is all firmly confirmed when they perform the protest, only for poor Justine to be singled out and nearly shot in the head by one of the militia. Because they believe in the potential fallout from the violence, they spare her. But Alejandro and Kara seem to want a sacrifice, believing it’ll strengthen their cause.
From this point on, Justine wants nothing to do with any of this. The one friend she has (and one of the few other likable characters), Jonah (Aaron Burns), tries to convince her that this was all for a greater good.
Then, their plane crashes on their way back.
The few remaining survivors are captured by the tribe–and guess what? They’re not so friendly. They are, indeed cannibals, and they spare no time making one of the poor kids part of their dinner plans.
From there on, we get a lot of gore. Eli Roth really pours it on and doesn’t flinch at all. It’s hard to watch at times, and even harder to listen to–but Roth knows his audience. You have to have a strong constitution, and a bit of a sick sense of humor, to enjoy his work.
There are moments early on of genuine humor, pacifying the foreboding notion that things are going to get ugly. Then, there are times where Eli Roth dares you to laugh. Some of these moments don’t hit their mark and come off as inappropriate and immature. When they hit, however, it’s great social satire.
And that’s what this exercise really is about. Sure, the tribe is full of cannibals and their thirst for human meat is pretty sickening to us. But, like it or not, that’s their nature. It’s what they do. They aren’t conscious of the fact that civilized people see it as wrong. The tribe leader is a woman, which I found interesting, and picks Justine to be some sort of special sacrifice because they discover she’s a virgin. Justine’s genuine fear, and Izzo’s believable acting, brings us further into caring about her. And that’s really key–because most of this is watching very annoying, obnoxious characters, die in horrible ways. And sometimes, emptying their bowels uncontrollably in the process.
On the other hand, Alejandro represents the very conscious “crusader” who comes off as manipulative, selfish, and scheming. So who’s the real monsters here?
It’s a bit obvious, and Eli Roth is very short on subtlety–but the point is still a strong one. These “activists” come off as hypocritical and shallow, selfish and completely ignorant.
And the message is clear: we don’t need to get involved in every single little scuffle, putting ourselves in the middle of something we don’t belong in. Especially when the intentions aren’t even really good ones, or altruistic ones. Justine finds that out the hard way.
Comparatively, we have it pretty easy.
The horror genre has always been kind of a side joke it seems in the grand scheme of things as far as Hollywood is concerned. It is always interesting to me, though, that many actors get their start in horror films (Johnny Depp, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Bacon to name a few). But probably 80% of them aren’t critically praised, and even blockbuster hits are seen as just “fun bad entertainment”.
These days, the horror genre is completely dominated by remakes to the point that it’s almost become its own sub-genre. With big franchises like “Friday the 13th”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” already having been re-booted, Hollywood is even taking aim at the more independent films like “Fright Night” and “I Spit On Your Grave” lately. It’s completely gutted the genre, and turned it into just a mindless cash cow, with no creativity or imagination put into it. It’s almost as if the genre has given up on itself. As schlocky as the 80’s were, we at least had gems like “Creepshow”, “Return of the Living Dead”, and “The Thing”.
But here comes along a small budget film that doesn’t look low budget, has the atmosphere and tension of something along the lines of “Halloween”, and it’s so fresh and invigorating to see life put back in the genre that this review may actually come off as a promo for it rather than a review. I will try to be fair, though. But “Munger Road” is the most effective horror thriller I’ve seen in years, and it actually gave me hope that if it finds major distribution, it could give the horror genre some leverage to be relevant again.
I thought “The Blair Witch Project”†would have†done the same 11 years ago; all it did, though, was spawn a lot of headaches like “Quarantine” and other wanna-be’s. “Munger Road” takes the more traditional approach.
It’s a ghost story. Actually, it’s a ghost legend story. It takes place in the western suburbs of Chicago, in St. Charles (a town I know quite well since I used to live around there). The legend is simple: there’s a road in Bartlett, Illinois called Munger Road that runs along train tracks. According to legend, a school bus stopped on the tracks and was hit by a train, killing the children. To this day, they “haunt” the area. So if you drive up to that road, and park your car, the children will push your car over the tracks so you’re safe. There are stories of a ghost train as well. There’s also a story of an old farmhouse where someone was murdered. But that one’s disputed. The popular theory is the latter, with the ghost children.
Of course, one of the best things about history is folklore. We can’t help but be drawn to stories like this. We want to believe them. For four kids, it’s their goal to get “evidence” of the ghost children pushing their car along the tracks. So they get a handcam, and baby powder, and their girlfriends, to go along and see if the Munger Road legend is real.
The kids are Corey (Trevor Morgan), his girlfriend Joe (Brooke Peoples), his buddy Scott (Hallock Beals), and Scott’s girlfriend Rachel (Lauren Storm). The girlfriends are obviously not into it, thinking this is just some dumb boy thing. But the boys are convinced this will be a good time. There’s a bit of a complication in Corey and Joe’s relationship that is never truly paid off between them, but it serves as an interesting underlying subplot that does actually have a good pay off in the end.
Meanwhile, the town of St. Charles is preparing for Scarecrow Fest, a fall carnival that is celebrated every October–and there’s a problem (isn’t that always the way?). An escaped lunatic has come back home, according to reports. The Chief of St. Charles Police, Kirkhoven (Bruce Davison) has to track the killer, or else the festivities could be upset. He takes his partner along with him, Deputy Hendricks (Randall Batinkoff), and the two discover a few clues that actually bring them close to where these kids are headed.
The film cuts back and forth between the cops and the kids, and first time writer/director Nick Smith does a good job of pacing the two stories, after a slow and somewhat clunky start, where eventually we’re just as invested in these officers getting their man as we are seeing these kids get out of their situation.
Oh, the situation is this: when they get to Munger Road, the two guys set up to make it look like kids handprints are on the car after it is mysteriously pushed forward over the tracks. The girls are upset when they figure it out, and just want to go home. But there’s a problem. The car won’t start. Didn’t see that one coming! But instead of this being an eye rolling cliche, we are invested enough in these kids thanks to good writing, that we really want them to get out of the situation. Munger Road is in the middle of nowhere, and their cell phones won’t work (of course!) so one of them has the idea that heading down the tracks back to town is a good one. Problems arise when he isn’t heard from after he leaves the car, and his girlfriend, Joe, tries to track him down.
One revelation that has one of the kids legitimately scared–they did capture something on the video recorder they didn’t expect. When they were trying to start their car, there’s the presence of someone behind them. Could it be the killer? That’s the obvious conclusion. But Smith does something interest with a bit of a twist at the end that we’re not really expecting. Let’s put it this way: it just isn’t as simple as the escaped killer; but it also may not be as simple that the legend is true.
The climactic scenes are very effective, even if there is a bit of a lull where there may be an expectation of a big reveal or “final fight” or something. It is a bit of a weakness, but I really did like the last scene. And although our expectations may be a little high by the time the film ends, I think Smith has enough command of the narrative that he did this on purpose.
There were a few “quiet” scenes between the kids that I would have liked to see a little more opening up about who they are; but there is so much tension in the air during their little adventure that I can forgive that Smith decided to forego a deeper look into the characters. We know enough to care.
I mentioned “Halloween” as a comparison. I do not mean to say that this film is in the same league, because that film is a classic and this film is just a bit too “familiar” to be considered on that level. That isn’t a slight to the movie, though. “Halloween” is one of the best horror films ever made. But Nick Smith has made a real contribution to the genre with “Munger Road”. And†Smith uses atmosphere†and tension†instead of blood and gore, the way Carpenter†did. And like Carpenter, Smith is always in control of this story.†It may†be something we’ve seen before, but it’s well executed, well written, and extremely well acted. The actors are very natural, and it reminded me of the performances in “The Blair Witch Project” (and the good news for them is that they don’t have to worry about their careers since this film isn’t built on the “found footage” gimmick). The character of Joe is the glue for the kids as much as the chief is the glue for the cop story, and both actors are very capable and so it’s all held together very well.
If you’re looking for a good “scare” movie, see this one–and take a date. It’s definitely better than what Hollywood’s been shelling out lately.
And if you’re going to go to Munger Road, just keep in mind–we all know about it. Including the cops. So be careful. And if someone starts pushing your car, just turn your car on and drive on. Do not stop. And definitely don’t check out the farmhouse, if you happen to find it.